Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Six-Day Race (Pt. 2)

[From a manuscript purported to be among the literary relicts of the estate of Raymond Chandler, creator of the private investigator, Philip Marlowe. Chandler died in 1959. In observance of the 2013 Tour de France which will commence this July, as it does each year.]
The Six-Day Race

The afternoon was sweltering.  The smog hung around like a fat dog outside my office in the Cahuenga Building.  I had the door to the inner office locked and the buzzer in the outside waiting room turned on, in the increasingly rare event that a paying client might walk in. I had the blinds drawn shut so I wouldn't have to watch the bricks in the wall outside my fourth-floor window shimmer in the heat. If my office were in Europe I would have been on the third floor, not that it would have helped the climate, or made the elevator ride any shorter. Or the rent any cheaper, for that matter. 

I had just set the office bottle and a clean glass onto the dust on top of my desk when the phone rang.  Lafferty’s voice gargled over the line like a strangled walrus on a Hawaiian ice floe. I could barely hear what he was saying for the whirr of the oscillating fan  You got anything for me, Marlowe?  I’ll take anything you found out. I need something.

How about a roundhouse to the jaw? I asked him. I asked nicely. Women tell me I generally ask nicely.

Don’t push me, Lafferty growled.  I got some pressure here. The boss thinks there’s maybe some kinda ring or somethin’.  Like a dope ring, maybe gang stuff, maybe kidnapping, smuggling. 

You left out the sex trade. That’s a pretty broad brush, Lafferty.  It’s not gangs, not kidnapping – the guy’s been seen on the street.  I don’t think he’s done anything illegal.  Yet, anyway.  But you’d be the best judge of that, I said, with a generous swipe of the soft soap.  

Lafferty grunted like a stuck bull in a tight stall. Not much help, are you Marlowe, he growled.   

Tell your boss you’re looking for a defrocked medico.  A doc who’s lost his shingle – busted, maybe for selling drugs, maybe for sticking up a blood bank, maybe some guy with veterinary aspirations who's been selling cow’s blood.  Which I guess is a pretty broad brush, but not so broad as yours.  And nothing illegal, that I know of.

I guess drinking blood ain't illegal, Lafferty admitted, but nobody said he was drinking anything. Drinking what you drink ain't illegal either. And you make it sound like the guy's a sicko.  A vampire.  We're talking about fruits riding bicycles, fer Chrissakes. They’re not shopping for blood, human or animal.  Do you think? Look at what they wear.  Talk to me Marlowe, I don’t like the sound of your smirk.

"Fruits riding bicycles . . ."

That’s what your boss said, I told him.  I guess these guys inject fresh blood for extra going power.  Like you might take a shot of rye, or a bit of strychnine in water, which in your case I recommend, Lafferty. But I don’t know anything except what I’ve been told.  Being a gimlet-and-scotch man myself, you understand. Or the occasional whiskey sour on a hot afternoon - it gives the Buick a nice pickup. But I probably shouldn’t mention that to a cop. Anyway, I’ve been talking to some people in what I’ll call related industries.

You don’t make this an easy job, Marlowe, Lafferty said, in a voice that sounded like a hymn at his mother’s graveside. You think I got it easy just ’cause I get a regular paycheck.

You’d be the best judge of that, I told him. I wouldn't know anything about a regular paycheck.

Yeah, said Lafferty, I'll send some flowers.
 The Buick

I got home late that night with not very much to show for an empty gas tank and a pair of feet that were barking like tired Dobermanns.  I set up the chess board, poured a solid double scotch, and had just started to replay the 1947 Petrograd match between Kazurov and Burakovsky, when the telephone rang.  It was Eddie.  Marlowe? he started.  No, this is the Scarlet Pimpernel - who’s this?  It’s Eddie, he said.  Is Marlowe there?  Eddie, I snorted, you got a cheese blintz for a head?

Oh, it’s you, Marlowe, he said, brightening.  Yeah, I seen that guy, Clement.  After you left this afternoon. He was going in the alley door at Nunzio’s Trattoria, I’d say about 6:30 this afternoon. 

He’s been missing for almost 24 hours, I calculated out loud. Jesus, I wonder what it takes to get disqualified in a bike race? I think it takes a letter from your priest, Eddie said. Or from Jesus.

I knew the joint. Nunzio's was a ‘trattoria’ like a cathouse is a Methodist church.  It was a cocktail bar, one you could bring your dog into, if you had a dog, one of those joints that’s always changing names but maybe not owners, always ‘formerly’ something else, like ‘Nunzio’s (formerly Scarpone’s)’.   It was frequented by the bike racers and by the drug trade – shady doctors and defrocked medical personnel who still had their hands in hospital dispensaries and resold prescription junk out of alley doors and car windows.  

  The floor show at Nunzio's (formerly the 'Creole Palace')

If Atlee was tangled up with these guys there was no way he could test clean and stay qualified – unless he had either a lot of dough or a reputation as shiny as the seat of a bus driver’s pants, which I hadn’t heard he did have.  Either one, I mean.  The way I figured it, he wouldn’t be in six-day races if he was loaded with cash, and he wouldn’t be in Nunzio’s if he was clean.  He was down on both counts and all I had to do was find some guy who was dealing bags of blood. Shouldn’t be too hard to nail a guy like that in what you might say was a niche market.  

Are you selling anyone blood, Eddie?  I asked abruptly.  No, boss, Eddie whined.  I’m a normal human being.  Who would sell it, then?  I asked him.  Anyone you might know?

I had a guy try to move into my patch about two months back, Eddie remembered.  He couldn’t get a source.  But a coupla guys mentioned seeing him hanging around in the warehouse district by the slaughterhouses.  I never made no connection.  Until now, just putting two and two together. 

Thanks, Eddie, I said.  It probably won't help, but it better be true.  God’s honest, he chirped.  I heard he was a vet who lost his license working the cockfights.  That’s what I figured, I told him.

I thought it was time to pay a visit to Nunzio’s, so I showered and shaved in anticipation of needing another shower when I came out of there.  I had to brace myself at the door before I pushed it open. I walked through into the dark and the malodorous smell of stale smoke and spilled beer.  There were six or eight people in the place - a pair at the bar, the others sitting at tables back in the deep murk.  I walked up to the bar and the barman slouched over indifferently.  Can I get a fresh squeezed orange juice? I asked him.  Sure, he said, put some ice in a highball glass and filled it from a bottle of sickly yellowish stuff that was recuperating in the ice well.  I didn’t say anything, I just tossed four bits onto the bar and stared into the back mirror without picking up the glass.

I studied the other patrons.  The tables didn’t look like they were doing anything but killing time there, but one of the two guys at the bar interested me greatly.  He had that emaciated, insect-like body bike racers get when the little bit they have left for the track comes from amphetamines.  He looked edgy and hungry and maybe like he might be ready to spill something besides his drink.  I walked over and offered him a smoke.  He shook his head, looked at it, then took it. Don't take it on my account, kid, I told him.  I lit it for him and another one for myself.

 The other guy at the bar

You might be able to help me, I said.  He didn’t answer, so I took out a sawbuck and slid it under his glass like a bar napkin.  He brightened, seemed to become more cooperative.  You’re not in the six-day at the Coliseum? I asked.  Pulled a hamstring in a fall, he said.

There’s medicine can help with that, I said.  He said he couldn’t afford that kind of medicine.  Ever use speed? I asked him.  Naw, he told me.  Know any guys who might? I asked.  You a narc? he shot back.  I was making him nervous.  Not me, I told him.  I’m looking for a guy named Clement Atlee.  He should be finishing up the six-day but no one’s seen him.  You seen him around?

He looked up into the mirror behind the bar to see if anyone could hear or might be watching us, and when he didn’t see anyone, he shook his head.  Clement's gone missing before, in the middle of a race, he said, talking sideways out of his mouth.  He's got somebody tells him when they're going to do pee tests, blood samples, whatever.  He knows, he leaves.

Why don't they yank him? I asked.  Why do they let him back on the track?  You got a couple more of those napkins? he asked. I slid two more sawbucks under his glass and kissed them a long goodbye.

Because, whispered Insect Man, if Clement didn't race no one would show up in the stands. The place would be empty as Saturday night mass. He's that big a draw? I asked. I admit I was impressed. I'd never even bet on the guy. 

He's a good rider, said the kid, but he does some weird stuff - medical treatments, I guess. The guys on his team don't talk about it but everyone else knows what's going on. Chicken blood, I've heard, or something. I don't mean Jamaican stuff - voodoo, nothing like that. Cow's blood, could be. You can get it from a few doctors - what everybody calls doctors - but you gotta have some money behind you. Serious money. Like money from somebody whose name you probably maybe already know.

The racer's edge

Somebody here in town? I knew I was on to something and I knew that The Bug was about to shut down on me like a slow electric garage door. One more thing, I said as quickly as the thought came to me. Where does he go for these, uhh, treatments?

It ain't local, he said, glancing up at the bar mirror. It's someplace back East - Aspen, I think. Never heard of it otherwise.

There was only one Aspen I'd ever heard of - some little dump of a Colorado mining town where interior decorators, down-and-out architects, and the occasional savings-and-loan executive went to avoid the sodomy laws, construction liens or the tax man.  I knew Clement wasn't in Aspen. He'd want to finish the race. His backers would want him to finish the race in the correct slot, the slot they'd paid for. So Clement was still in town.

But I knew I'd be making a trip to Aspen on my own dime. I wasn't looking forward to any more cheesy overpriced diner food, or another paperboard room in a crappy motel full of highly buzzed ski trash in Jeeps.

(To be continued)

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Six-Day Race (Pt. 1)

[From a manuscript purported to be among the literary relicts of the estate of Raymond Chandler, creator of the private investigator, Philip Marlowe. Chandler died in 1959. In observance of the 2013 Tour de France which will commence this July, as it does each year.]

 The Six-Day Race

The phone by the bed jangled me out of a bad dream.  Better late than never.  I’d been dodging some rough customers, the kind who need a shave and a new haberdasher.  It was down around Mazatlan along the Cocaine Corrida, and I was driving too fast, trying to lose a Packard-load of thugs in cheap suits on the lane-and-a-half of a typical Mexican highway.  I can’t say I was sorry to wake up, even considering I’d emptied the office bottle and then some the previous evening.  But that was history now and I knew before I was fully awake I’d have to get reacquainted with my head for the rest of the day.

After a few fumbles I got the receiver right side up, just in time to hear Lafferty already in full throat, like the sound of a lathe cutting some mug’s headstone.  All I could think without coffee was, here we go again. Perfectly natural in the circumstances. The circumstances were Lafferty.

Aw, Lafferty, I groaned. It’s nine-thirty in the a. m. What can’t the entire L. A. police department figure out now?

Aw,  don’t 'aw Lafferty' me, Lafferty aw-Laffertyed me. We got a problem. You got a problem, more like it.

I wasn’t awake yet. There was something I wasn’t taking in. The Packard was still racing through the mists of my subconscious, making me wonder what I could have done last night.  Tell me about my problem, I moaned.

There’s a rub, Marlowe. I know you bet pretty heavy on those six-day races down at the Coliseum. So, three days in and a schmoe in funny shorts from the lead team goes past the concession stand, well in front.  By the turn he’s gone, kaput, disappeared, like an angel in the mist. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Marlowe?

I could see Lafferty’s face as he talked, eyes like gumboils, big nose cratered like the fenders on a getaway car. It didn’t improve my hangover. Or my mood.

No, Lafferty, I wouldn’t know anything about that. You’re absolutely correct in your surmise. I was waking up now.

Aw, don’t go all Sherlock Holmes on me, Lafferty barked. I was impressed by his sudden ability to spot irony when it hit him in the kisser.

Look, I said. You know me well enough to know that I’m a sporting man. I wouldn’t take any bet I could fix. You already know that. So why are you calling at this hour?

There was dead silence on the other end, like when a humanitarian has just shot the neighbor’s barking dog at six a.m.  I didn’t figure it was you, Lafferty finally said.

Thanks, I said. Could you say that again, just a little louder and with some feeling?

Don’t push me, Marlowe. My point is, you know most of those dainty-legged types with the cowhide up their asses. Find out what you can and let us know, would you?

Why didn’t someone file a missing person report? I asked him. It’s not that, Lafferty mumbled. It’s probably kidnapping, or drugs or something like that.

Sure, I said. And where should I submit my expenses? And then there’s the matter of my considerable upkeep.

The LAPD does not forget its friends, Marlowe, Lafferty said in a plangent whisper. He sounded like he was lying to some woman on a dance floor.

I almost teared up. You mean you won’t hassle me too much when another one of my clients turns up in the morgue?

Like that, Lafferty said.

I’d been betting on the six-day races since the Coliseum installed the best board track west of the Alleghenies.  It was every bit as finely banked as the one at the Garden, the Chicago boards were no better, and the L.A. track was faster than either.  I’d gotten to know the racers, all the skinny-legged kids from Fresno and Sacramento, the banged-up veterans from the Portland and Seattle circuits. Every kid had a dream, every scar told a tale. I liked horse racing, but I liked bicycle racing better.  Horses can’t talk.  And they generally don’t have marital problems, or owe anybody for barbiturates.

My general rule, when looking around for an easy solution, is to talk to the janitor first.  Janitors belong to the second-oldest profession in the world.  Meaning whatever the oldest profession might be, someone had to clean up after it. And they would have at least an idea about what went on.  My Roladex had as many phone numbers for guys named Stubby as it had numbers for girls named Lulu.

Actually, the guy’s name was Luis and he was in his office in the basement when I found him.  He pulled a bottle and two glasses out of his desk when he saw me.  I offered him a cigarette, took one for myself, flared a match on my thumbnail, lit us both and sat down.

Cheers, he said , yeah, it was the damnedest thing.  This guy’s coming around the turn on the east side of the arena, he’s just gone past the hot dog tienda, veers off into one of the bleacher aisles - no idea how he coulda made that turn - through a double door into a loading area and no one’s had a glimmer of him since. You didn’t pay him to throw it, did you Marlowe, he asked with a big grin.

I ignored it.  Who was the guy, I asked, did he have a name?  Clement Atlee was what I heard, Luis said. Luis was a real card.

It doesn’t figure, I said. Bike racing is working-class stuff – pretty soon guys from Texas will be in it and when that happens, I’m out of it. I wouldn’t bet on a Texan to do anything but cheat the dealer.

You mean a gringo Texan, Luis insisted. So maybe Clement’s a gringo Texan. Luis was trying my patience. but maybe he was on to something. I couldn't tell, him being a smartass Mexicano. 

Clement Atlee’s the prime minister of Great Britain, I said wearily. So did this guy Clement Atlee wear a vest and smoke a pipe? Was he carrying a musette full of diplomatic communications?

Luis was thoughtful, and not in an ironic way. Not that I noticed, he said carefully. These guys don’t wear musettes. They all eat at the hot dog counter.

Yeah, I almost forgot, I said.  They like to eat healthy.

I knew some bicycle racers. The way I figured them, they weren’t in it for the dames.  Those funny legs don’t draw women.  And for three hundred dollar purses, they weren’t in it for the money. So I figured it had to be for drugs – strychnine, cocaine, Dexadrol, Seconal, cheap champagne for the hungover days, you name it, they’d try it and probably buy it.  Putting a six-day racer next to a dime bag is like putting a cheap suit next to a radiator – in ten minutes all you’ve got is a mess on your hands.

I knew a few junk dealers on the Strip, too, so I thought that might be a good place to start.  It was a warm evening and I’d had a brace of Beefeater gimlets and a rare Jap steak over in La Brea with an old flame who wouldn’t say no, except at the wrong times, so after I dropped her at her apartment building on La Cienega I put the top down on the Buick and drove back into town to examine the trade along Sunset Boulevard.

The Buick

Just outside the Town House Grille (with an ‘e’) I spotted an old friend.  His name was Eddie, never a last name that I knew of.  I pulled in along the curb and he came up to the car, leaned over the door, and bummed a smoke. I flared a match and lit it, he took a drag and started to look interested. Wathcha got? he asked.

Whaddaya need?  I asked. Like always, he grinned back, money.  I fished out a Lincoln and handed it over. He rolled it up, bent down and put it in his sock. He straightened, looked at me with renewed curiosity, and said, So? Whaddaya need?

Eddie (by Bob Evans)

What do you know about Clement Atlee? I said after a minute.  Prime minister o’ Great Britain, our grateful friend and ally in the last and we hope the final war among nations, he said. I told him to cut the crap. Clement Atlee, I said.

He come by here last evening, pretty late, said he needed a bag of blood pretty bad. Told me he could pay up after the last day of the race, Sunday.

A bag of blood?

I thought he musta been crazy at first, but he told me that’s how they do it – fresh blood in the veins, they seem to go longer or somethin’, not sure how that would work, but . . . Eddie shuddered like a girl with a spider down her back.

What did you tell him?

I said I wasn’t in that line, never heard of anyone selling blood. He says no, you can get a prescription for it, if you know the right doc. Fresh blood is like medicine, he said.

That’s sick, I said. That’s what I told him, said Eddie.  I said I ain’t in that line. And besides, I prob’ly don’t have your type, I told him.

What type is that? I asked.  He wasn’t sure, said Eddie. Thought it might be B-positive.

Have any? I asked. Have to check the stock, Eddie said. So where did he go? I asked. No idea, Eddie said. He said he had to get back, might be disquallerfied or dropped or somethin’.

Don’t forget my number, I told him. No, sir, he said. I got it in my heart.

Yeah, I said, like a lesion. Right, he said. Exactly. Nowhere without it.

(To be continued)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stairway to Plato

I just found on Miguel's Facebook page this video clip (courtesy of friend and "friend" David R.) of Heart doing a cover tribute to Led Zeppelin last year at the Kennedy Center, three of the remaining Zeppelin members in attendance as guests of honor. It's always unnerving, when referring to the members of bands from my own era, to be under the necessity of employing "remaining" or "surviving" as a qualifier. No such necessity arises when referring to Beethoven or Mozart of course, but everyone knows what the choice of a musical career did to them. Nonetheless, this is well worth a listen, if only as a setting for the ensuing profundities.

Watching this video reminded me of an argument I heard from one of my professors during my youthful academic beginnings at some backwater version of the Sorbonne (a professor, incidentally, who soon went on to greater vistas than my recalcitrant improvement through philosophical instruction). He insisted, and was writing a plausible book to establish his argument, that a thing like a musical performance is a performance of something. That is, it's a performance of some thing which is not the same as the performance of the thing. So Heart can do a bang-up performance of "Stairway to Heaven," just as Led Zeppelin did 40-odd years ago, but what they're performing is the same thing, namely the song, "Stairway to Heaven."

Well, seems obvious. But not so fast, Trismegistus. What exactly is a song such that it can be, and remain, the same thing over those 40-odd years? What sort of thing is it, anyway? Is it the entire set of performances to date? But those can be added to. Is it an idea which those musicians share? But some can get it badly wrong, and is that the same idea? What this actually raises is the medieval debate between the nominalists and the realists, the linguistic sceptics and the neoplatonists. 

 "Hmmmph . . . I'll show you, or some instantiation of you."

The nominalists maintained that "Stairway to Heaven" is merely a name which refers to no particular thing, but signifies only the various particular instances or occurrences of "Stairway" (performances, bundles of sheet music, individual recordings on records or CD's, someone's humming of a tune) which happen to resemble one another in important, defining ways. Perhaps in essential ways, and those individual instances we assign a tag or name to. Flatus vocus, such names are mere empty breath, devoid of reference, signifying only because we all agree (usually less rather than more precisely) what they mean. The universe is made of discrete particular things and we join them only by the conventions of linguistic meaning.

Aha, responded the realists (and my professor), instances or occurrences of what, exactly? And in ways essential to . . . exactly which thing, prithee? The realists' world consists in universals, ideas to which words make reference. Heart doing a cover of "Stairway" is not the same as "Stairway," which is an ideal thing of which Heart's performance is one particular instance. The name refers to a real thing, which is not merely the collection of all its instances in the world.

 Real or imagined?

My professor landed squarely on the side of the Platonists. The performances of a musical work (he always used Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as an example, but "Stairway to Heaven" will more than suffice for the argument) are performances of something, and the thing they are performances of is separate from the class of all performances of that thing. It is a thing that exists independently of its performances - in short, one of Plato's ideas.

It's more than I can say, who may be right. But listening to that video nudges me into the Platonists' camp. It seems a thing that transcends Robert Plant and the Wilson Sisters, Led Zeppelin and Heart. It has its own life, and any artist can only aspire to get it right. Once would be enough.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Bone-Tired Barista

"Everything about St. Louis annoyed us — the tired baristas, empty restaurants." 
        - teaser on a New York Times op-ed, "Loving the Midwest" (June 8, 2013)

I smiled when I read that plangent line, living as I do these itinerant days in the Midwest, pillar to post between travel trailer and farmhouse, eating what I can find when I find it. Actually, I can't remember whether I smiled, or just snorted at some poor sap living in St. Louis who can't find a well-rested barista and thinks he's living in the Midwest. Anyone who wants to find a barista, tired or otherwise, should move to Portland. Portland is a hell peopled with over-educated baristas. For my part, I'd be happy to find even a bone-tired barista in Kansas, but they're pretty thin on the ground out here.(I heard one was spotted in Overland Park a while back.)

(Actually, I'm a quantum theorist)

As are restaurants, for that matter, not to put too fine a point on it. Here is the Midwest of song and legend, where the pickles are chicken-fried and the fish is frozen. Let me tell you how I spent my day, a day like every day in Kansas, a day bereft of baristas, fresh out of fresh-squeezed mango puree and organic kale smoothies. A day without soy derivatives.

First of all, when I awoke this morning, I was in Kansas and it was windy. I knew it would be. I had some orange juice, put the kettle on the propane burner in my trailer, and undertook to fill the niche role of auto-barista to a groggy and somewhat ill-humored old man in need of coffee. Then I got into my pickup truck with the cracked windshield, because I had to drive 160 miles to Colorado to swap out data cards in a bat sensor mounted on a MET tower in the dead center of a square-mile of cow pasture. 

 (Sorry, that's the MetLife Tower)

It was windy there as well, gusting around 35 miles per hour, which is of course why I have to go to places like that. Once I opened the gate, bumped my way a half-mile over rutted pasture, kept my notebook from being shredded to the four winds, retrieved my cap and drove back out the 25 miles to the interstate, I needed a good lunch and a barista.

Naturally there were none to be found - baristas, that is. I did find some restaurants of sorts, but they were observing business hours I found to be idiosyncratic, not to put too fine a point on it. They were empty because they were closed. Or vice versa. I finally made it to Colby, Kansas, the gem of Thomas County. (Colby is perhaps best known as the place where you see the portrait of "Wheatfield Jesus" along Interstate 70.)

 "Jesus, don't creep up on me like that!"

Along the main street I found the B-Hive open for business, serving a mid-afternoon luncheon. The B-Hive is not promising from the street - the windows are either fogged or hopelessly grimed with years of fryolater cookery; the lights do not shine through and beckon the weary or the desolate; the door seems closed and probaby locked. But it opened and I went in to light, warmth, the smell of charred beef and the glow of ESPN's NCAA Collegiate World Series on the wide-screen TV. It occurred to me to ask the good man at the counter if he could tune in to the regular Saturday Texaco broadcast of "Live at the Met," but I thought better of it when I remembered I was not in St. Louis nor was he a barista.

I asked for a menu and was genially handed the card propped on the counter in front of me - it offered the usual fare, which was a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a double of either (also available with bacon), fried chicken strips, fried chicken liver, and fried chicken gizzards. The hamburger tempted me but it was $3.90. The cheeseburger, at an even $4.00, won the palm. It was cooked on a short order grill while I watched and came buried in crispy hot french fries, in one of those plastic baskets that forces you to dig down and scrounge around in the paper before you come up with what you were looking for.

(Couldn't see it down in there)

Even though the menu would never have used the phrase (a St. Louis menu would have), this burger was a genuine "hand-crafted" job, a thick irregular ovoid in shape, black on the outside, pink and rare on the inside, the cheese a melted square of school-bus yellow. A good job all around and no chef in sight.

I was regaled, I felt as though I'd been treated fairly and with courtesy, in fact treated as well as the most well-rested barista could have treated anyone. Back on the interstate and off again in Oakley, where I drove around side streets following the water tower until I reached the fairgrounds where there was an antique and classic car show in which a local aquaintance had entered his '55 Ford F-100 pickup (red and other ways a lot like this one) . . .

Rex enters one of his cars in a local show nearly every weekend through the summer, unless it gets hotter than it gets in St. Louis, which is pretty often. He pulls a lawn chair out of the trunk of whatever he's driven there that week, parks it in the shade with the same guys as last week and the week before, hollers and boos as the judges hand out their awards in a singularly listless monotone (after they've adjusted the squeals and hums out of the public address system), hums along to the same crappy '50's and 60's music they play every week ("Little Deuce Coupe" again, anyone?), and goes home with a small plaque as one of the 25 best of show or whatever. It's fun, everyone there has known everyone there for years, and everyone has seen everyone's car around the local circuit a hundred times. I even ran into a guy from Colorado who lives just down the road from the cow pasture I had just come from. He had driven his '69 Malibu 120 miles just to sit in a lawn chair with everyone else.

By the time I found my trailer at the state park, it was nearly 6:00 p.m. and the neighbors were smoking meat on the grill. Every weekend, the neighborhood is redolent with the smell of burning flesh and the sound of conversation, animated or desultory. Strolling about in the warm evening I overheard two "buddies" (one of those Midwestern terms that leaves no room for any sexual ambivalence) in social congress over the barbecue grill. One was saying, in that slightly raised voice which generally presages something clever about to be put on the table, "We got a saying here in Kansas - if you want loyalty, buy a dog." 

"I got four o' them," replied the other matter-of-factly. Who needs a barista?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summer in Kansas: Toad's Caravan

Living in a travel trailer is so American that I wonder I haven't tried it before. But six or seven years of weekly five-hour commutes, four of those years travelling through what is arguably one of the ugliest and most boring stretches of the rural United States along Highway 50, and I was prevailed upon to buy a modest home away from home - a 13-foot, lightweight and lightly used trailer. It has, as my wife says, everything a big fifth-wheel has except space. Thirteen feet is, after all, shorter than the average canoe, or sturgeon, just to mention a couple of things that spring immediately to mind.

  (illustration by Arthur Rackham)

In The Wind in the Willows, when Kenneth Grahame wants to make Toad a raffish and interesting character with a thirst for life's little frissons . . .

tumblr_mk9dc5HE9C1r92xtdo1_500.jpg (469×500)

. . .   he gives him, variously, an overpowered roadster, a runabout boat for the river, and what the English call a caravan. 

The cast of riverbank characters - Toad, Mole, Badger, Ratty and so on - are all bachelors and so naturally they set off on their adventures in a bachelor company. I am not a bachelor, which partially explains why, for much different reasons, I also have a caravan. It's nice to sleep diagonally on occasion, as Walter Shandy observes in the pages of another landmark of English literature, but surely not every night, nor even regularly.

Inga Moore, "Wind in the Willows"
 (illustration by Inga Moore)

And as I'm busy with separate projects separated by 80 Kansas miles, I divide my time between lodgings on a rural estate (known locally as "the old Randall place," even though old Randall has long since been gathered to his fathers) and a camp trailer in a state park on a lake surrounded by big cottonwoods and "cedars," known as junipers nearly everywhere else. Kind of like this . . .

"Did you remember to bring the worms?"

. . . only with more people around. Still, it has potential: I can see taking it off to the mountains or the seaside . . .
"Did you remember to bring sunscreen?"

Maybe the wife and I could even join a club. But as I think I've mentioned before, I'm never going to play mah jongg. Never, with anyone.

 "Did you remember to bring the canasta deck?"

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Yiddish Spelling: Harder Than Chinese Algebra

"Yiddish scholars objected to the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was won by a 13-year-old from Queens who spelled the name of a traditional dumpling “k-n-a-i-d-e-l” in accordance with Webster’s Dictionary, rather than the traditional spelling, “k-n-e-y-d-l.” “K-n-a-d-e-l,” said a Yiddish speaker at a Bronx seniors center. “K-n-a-w-d-l-e,” said a man at a nearby table. “There’s no real spelling of the word,” said the owner of a Manhattan deli that sells T-shirts reading “kneidel."
                                                                           "Harper's Weekly Review," June 4, 2013

When I was a lad in knee breeches sending hoops down the sidewalk with a stick and selling door-to-door subscriptions to "Boy's Best Chum" whilst peeling someone's Fleer Dubble Bubble off the soles of my gum shoes, I was a fearsome speller. In those palmy days before Texas Instruments, before illicit under-the desk smart phones with spelling apps, we had classroom spelling bees, school-wide spelling bees, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian spelling bees ("homiletics, h-o-m-i-l-e-t-i-c-s, soteriology, s-o-t-e-r-i-o-l-o-g-y . . ."). We had Fourth of July spelling bees, county fair spelling bees ("heifer, h-e-f-f-e-r . . .").

 Miguel as a fourth-grade spelling champion

I was always the last man standing, so to speak. I could correct the sometimes erratic spelling of my teachers to a point at which my largesse was spurned and I sulked in satisfying contempt of a figure whom God had placed in authority over me. The teachers would turn niggardly and give me only the easiest words to spell after a while, figuring everyone else needed the practice. I once had a mental block, early in one such contest when I was getting the easy pitches: "art - a-r-t-e." Sniggers. "Try it again." "Art - a-r-t-e." Crude laughter, and finally I mentally heard my mistake. On the world tour I would have been packing my prepubescent portmanteau (say that one fast - or spell it).

 "P-r-e-p-u-b-e-s-s . . ."

This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee winner is a kid from Queens named Arvind Mahankali. Arvind, being from an ethnic group more of the chappati-paratha persuasion, has never even tasted a knaidel, but - who knew? - he was able to spell the German-derived Yiddish word for a matzo ball to earn the trophy and more than $30,000 in cash and prizes. "The German curse," Arvind said, "has turned into a German blessing."

The 'German curse'? Hmmmm . . . the suburbanite's Porsche Cayenne? linzertort with a chocolate crust? (no, Austrian) . Maybe fat people on Greek islands wearing shorts and bikinis? Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . no, Austrian again. I meant Angela Merkel, they look alike. Oh, now I get it - according to a local news website, "Arvind finished third the two previous years, eliminated both times on German words." Fair enough, I've fluffed "Fahrenheit." (German words always seem like they need a terminal exclamation point as part of the spelling. Where would "Arbeit Macht Frei" have gotten without at least an implied punkt?) And why should some skinny Indian kid from Jackson Heights (just a guess) know German from Gujarati, or Yiddish from Yugoslavian? I mean, could you spell the Gujarati word for 'bugger off'?

Arvind at work

So this young stand-up orthographer gives a Webster spelling for a yiddish word and the world of Judaic orthographic scholarship (all eleven in attendance at the last world convention in the Tel Aviv Ramada Garden Inn) is protesting as though it's the World Cup and they should burn the Egyptian stadium down. As though Yiddish orthographic precepts were to be discovered by a careful reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . 

. . . I mean to say, is it schwanz or schwans, schwanse or shvansig? What was ordained to Moses? No, make that Moishe. I grant you it's a Yiddish scholar's job to object, but give the kid a leedle break. Take a rest. You shouldn't be so much upsetting yourself. You should probably call your mother oftener. I'm not saying you should have a good time, just not a terrible time.